The rolling hills of Burgundy’s Mâconnais region are particularly celebrated for vibrant Chardonnay, but there are also excellent Pinot Noir and Gamay vineyards here; some of which are home to treasured old vines. In comparison to the Côte d’Or, it’s generally a little more rural here — vineyards are bordered by herd of goats — and although you’re an hour further south, the additional elevation in some areas means freshness is harnessed.
One of the winemakers who found himself enamoured by this microclimate is Peter Gierszewski, of Domaine de Thalie. Previously a chemistry student turned wine merchant, when the opportunity arose to delve in headfirst to the world of farming and winemaking, there was no turning back.
Although he was born and raised in Burgundy, Peter was not the son of winemakers, and thus had no land to inherit. In his words, “I started from nothing.” However, his father was a great wine lover, and there was always a new wine to try at dinner. He says,
“I had studied science— chemistry to be precise — and I liked wine a lot. My dad was an amateur, so we always had nice wines on the table, and he’d done some experiments, so I was raised around wine. And oenology is a bit like chemistry, so I decided to study it. That’s how I came to wine.”
After having done his studies, he became a wine merchant. It was while buying and selling wines that his love for organic and biodynamic viticulture began.
He was hooked, and when the opportunity arose for him to buy some vineyards, it was a once-in-a-lifetime situation. The answer was yes, and in 2009, Peter suddenly found himself the parent of 4.5 hectares of vines and an old farm.
Since falling for drinking organic and biodynamic wines, when it came to farming his own vines himself, the only option Peter considered was to work organically. He did winemaking internships with some of the well-known organic and biodynamic wineries of the Mâconnais, such as Julien Guillot and the Bret Brothers, learning as much as he could, and since taking his vineyards on in 2009, the vines have been both organically and biodynamically farmed. He says,
“As a merchant, around 80% of the wines I sold were organic and/or biodynamic. Those were the wines that showed me the true expression of terroir, and of the grape varieties. When it came to farming my own vineyards, I didn’t see any other way to work — organic was the minimum for me.”
The diverse landscape of Mâcon — Peter describes some of the vineyards as rather wild — enables him to ensure his vineyards thrive, given an extra helping hand by his practice of biodynamic methods. He also did an internship in the subject of emerging area of geobiology in the Auvergne. This field of work studies the interactions of electromagnetic forces with living beings. He says,
“It’s a way of listening to the living.”
He says it’s sometimes unfairly dismissed as witchcraft, and we find ourselves nodding — but out of frustration (we don’t think it’s witchcraft, either). That’s the thing with biodynamics, too — people may dismiss it as esoteric, but ultimately, if the person using it finds it beneficial to their vineyards, isn’t that the most important thing? We ask him how he, as a scientist, responds to people who are sceptical of biodynamics. He pauses, thinking.
“Not everything can be explained, but the truth is… it works. Some things we can show through studies — such as the acid / alkaline of certain teas, which can help the vine to fight against disease. But we can also see it from the structure of our soil. When people doubt it, I just say, come and see the vines. That’s the best way to show people, and to convince them. You can simply see the difference in the soils, and in the wines.”
And with regards to geobiology?
“Geobiology is quite esoteric, but it’s also something we’ve used for thousands of years to construct churches and houses — and to communicate. Some things are just hard to prove. We’re in a period of time where we’ve forgotten to listen. We’re not listening or using our senses. We need to open our eyes.”
It’s this return to using our senses that inspires Peter; he uses local plants, such as willow, comfrey, stinging nettles, pine and horsetail, to use in his preparations which he sprays on the vineyards. They are combined with the traditional organic sprays of sulphur and copper, but by using the plants, he has noticed overall disease pressure has been lessened. This enables him to use much less of the copper and sulphur than the average, with his own average copper dose being just 1.5kg per year (the EU limit is 4kg). This is noteworthy as copper in itself — although organic — is a heavy metal, which can be toxic in high doses, so the ability to reduce doses so drastically is very important for the ecosystem of the soil. In addition, Peter is naturally fortunate due to the location of his vineyards. They sit at 400m elevation and consistently receive winds, which means the vines and soil dry well, in turn making powdery mildew — and particularly downy mildew — less of a worry.
He also works with petit-lait (whey) in his sprays to combat powdery mildew. He explains,
“You can also use milk, but I think it’s a shame to use a food source like milk when people need it. But we have a lot of goat farmers in the area, and they produce whey, which is a waste product. I think it’s interesting to use a product which people would usually throw away. Why not reuse it if you can? It works rather well, although you need quite a lot, and it needs to be kept in the fridge for a few days. Otherwise, you lose the power of the bacteria; it’s more efficient when it’s cool.”
He is also experimenting on some parcels with the plant-based teas only. He says it works well in some years, is harder in others when there’s high disease pressure, but overall the health of the vineyards is moving in a positive direction. He says,
“Whether regarding geobiology or biodynamics, these practices bring vitality, and help to strengthen the vine — you notice that the vine produces more wood. They are also less stressed by any extremes in weather; less stressed by drought (or too much water). Since implementing geobiology, the vibratory field has improved, and the plant seems healthier — at least, I think so! I definitely notice we have less disease attacks, and when we do have powdery or downy mildew, we manage to deal with it with little intervention and small doses.”
When it comes to replanting, Peter works with two nurseries, one of which is local, and the other is Hébinger in Alsace— one of the only nurseries (together with Lilian Bérillon in the south) that works according to organic and biodynamic methods. He selects samples of his old vines, which the nursery then propagates and grafts for him. This is known as massal selection, and it ensures that the important and historic genetic diversity of his old vines is duplicated and thus protected.
Since working biodynamically, it’s not only the vineyards that have become healthier, it’s the wines, too. Likewise, however, it was a step-by-step process. He says,
“It’s an old farm here, and at the start we didn’t yet have a ‘vinification atmosphere’ — there weren’t many ambient bacteria or yeasts. At the start, fermentations were very slow. So, I did a lot of work to ensure we have microfauna in the area. Now, the fermentations are much faster. Bit by bit, I’ve been able to add less and less sulfites and additives, to now reach the point where I can add very few sulfites. And even though they have less sulfites, the wines age really well.”
For all his wines, he now never adds sulfites before the very end of the winemaking process (right before bottling), and only adds a tiny amount (around 20ppm), if at all. It’s been a progressive journey to get to the stage he’s at today, and there have been many experiments (and, he admits, many mistakes) along the way.
He is now content with his methods in the cellar. His white wines are directly pressed with whole bunches, very slowly, to enable him to have very clear juice naturally. For his red wines, he used to destem some of the grapes, but has now moved closer and closer to all whole bunches, averaging around 80% whole bunches in his ferments. He says,
“Whole bunches keep the freshness and give finesse and that ethereal side. The wines are less heavy. I also like the stem tannins, which carry the wine — they give a touch of bitterness which gives an elegant side, and a floral dimension.”
As well as his Pinots and Chardonnays, he also makes Gamay. As the region borders Beaujolais, this is where two worlds meet. His Mégalithe cuvée comes from 60/70-year-old Gamay vines. They’re planted on marl soils, which is unusual, as these are cold soils, meaning they’re usually home to Chardonnay. This vineyard, however, is south facing and hence a bit warmer — perfect for Gamay. He does whole bunch carbonic vinification, but without gas (he adds some fermenting juice to the vat and closes it, so the juice creates CO2 naturally). He leaves it alone for ten days, and when he sees the sugar begin to dip down, he takes the free run juice into a tank, and then presses the rest, combines the two and leaves it to finish its natural fermentation.
This is simple Burgundian winemaking at its best; Peter’s vines — and thus his fruit — is so healthy that he can simply transform the juice to wine with very little human interference. And that’s the way he likes it; he’s seeking an uninterrupted truth from his grapes. And ultimately, something delicious. He says,
“When Japanese visitors come here, they often don’t look at the wine, and rather just taste it and tell me what sensation the wine gives them. For me, that’s just a super way to taste. Does the wine feel good – does it feel cooling or warming? How does it affect me? Is it pleasant?”
We smile: just like we discussed how human beings have forgotten to use our senses in farming, have we also become too analytical in tasting? At the end of the day, wine is about the pleasure it brings, not its specific aroma profile. Peter nods in agreement, adding,
“I look for emotion in wine: a story. I want the wine to tell me something, or to make me feel like I’m travelling somewhere. It should communicate a message to me, and it should feel like it’s doing something good for us.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.